by Angela Engel
This election year, Denver voters will have an opportunity to demonstrate the power of citizen engagement and the importance of direct control of our neighborhood schools. National interests are investing heavily in Denver’s school board race. The players are many, the politics ugly, and the possibilities are, well, promising.
Stand for Children established a Colorado chapter in 2010 in order to push legislation that tied teacher evaluations to test scores. Their investors include The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and New Profit Inc., a “national venture philanthropy fund.” Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) is a newer organization that promotes charter schools, alternative certification training, and performance pay, and in addition, promotes mayoral control. Another player, the Alliance for Choice in Education (ACE), originated in Colorado in 2000. ACE members made significant campaign contributions to the Douglas County School Board responsible for directing private dollars away from some of the most high-performing public schools in the state. Several other funders have also joined the ranks, and the one thing they all have in common are trustees and board members with corporate connections and with very deep pockets.
The Profit Motive
So why are corporate executives and wealthy entrepreneurs suddenly interested in public education? Because they like to make money, and recent education reforms, along with “new tax credits.” The Education management organizations (EMOs) in which they heavily invest their money have provided ample opportunity to make a dollar.
Here’s how they do it:
Private charters and online schools. Under the guise of failing test scores, EMOs* co-opt community schools or aggressively market for online students. Colorado Virtual Academy (COVA), managed by the Virginia-based company K12, projected growth in excess of 100 million dollars last year. It’s fair to note that many charter schools are district managed and publicly controlled. Still, Colorado policymakers have created a double standard favoring charter schools. Education News Colorado reported that nearly half of online student enrollments leave before finishing the year. The majority of programs are low performing and operating outside of the accountability mandates required of public schools. Online and charter schools can hire non-licensed and non-certified employees.
Alternative licensing programs have become big business. Teach for America (TFA) reported earnings in 2009 of more than $269 million. Their tax documents list their net assets at $261.5 million. This past July the Walton Family Foundation committed $49.5 million to double the number of Teach For America candidates throughout the United States; $3.1 million was designated for Colorado.
Senator Michael Bennet, DFER “Reformer of the Month” and recipient of nearly $500,000 in DFER campaign contributions, is sponsoring the GREAT Act, which calls for taxpayer dollars to fund private revenue-generating alternative certification models. In a “Statement of Principles to fix the Elementary Secondary Education Act,” Bennet stated, “We also must support programs like Teach for America…” TFA prepares college graduates in a five-week summer training program. While their results are mediocre at best, TFA candidates are attractive to budget-strapped districts. The majority of candidates don’t last, and the two year revolving door of cheap labor keeps costs associated with salaries and benefits low. The two-year contracts and building transfers allow TFA candidates to maneuver around teacher effectiveness mandates and the accountability required of real teachers.
Tests, text books, and more tests. While education experts and innovators call for personalized learning and differentiated models of schooling, groups like Stand for Children and DFER support national standards (Common Core is also funded by Gates) and punishments and sanctions tied to test scores. The McGraw Hill (publishers of CSAP) financial fact book mirrors the national education platform. It’s no wonder, with contracts in 26 states, that this publishing company holds a monopoly over all curriculum and assessments. The failed No Child Left Behind Act based on standardization and high-stake testing has cost taxpayers billions and delivered zero in terms of return on investment…unless of course you are a publishing company. McGraw Hill listed revenues at $2.3 billion in 2009.
While corporate revenues are growing, school budgets across the state continue to shrink. Every child in Colorado will see a decrease of 5% in per-pupil funding. The results of the millions in cuts and misdirected funding has meant larger class sizes, fewer course offerings, reductions in intervention and prevention services, elimination of gifted and special education programs, and fewer college opportunities for Colorado’s children. This election holds the opportunity for communities to reclaim their neighborhood schools.
So pay attention, Colorado! Corporate board takeovers are targeted for Denver, Adams 50, Jefferson County, Colorado Springs District 11, Mapleton, Harrison, Mesa County and Weld County.
According to the ACE website, “we encourage everyone to pay close attention to this important election, as the pro-charter, pro-choice, pro-accountability reforms that have taken root in Denver may be at stake. Our friends at Stand for Children are a great resource on the candidates, their positions and the issues surrounding this critical election.”
Stand for Children and their investors will be directing millions at these targeted races. The question is whether the money go to our children or whether the children go to the money. Colorado deserves school boards committed to strong neighborhood schools that grow thriving communities. We need leaders that understand the importance a strong education system plays in a democratic society and an educated and empowered workforce. Our children and their future warrant a local government dedicated to protecting and serving their interests. This election is an important opportunity to restore the “public” in public education and ensure that our school leaders put community service above self-interest. Ballots are out. Cast your vote for kids, not corporations.
Angela Engel, author of Seeds of Tomorrow: Solutions for Improving our Children’s Education, has been an advocate for children, families and the advancement of education for more than 15 years. Clear and direct, she writes from her extensive experience in the education system as a teacher, school administrator and parent of two school-age children. Her writing brings solution-based thinking and a gift to articulating complex issues in concrete, meaningful ways that connect with the diversity of stakeholders in the education system.The Executive Director of Uniting4Kids, her current work includes empowering teachers, parents, and students to honor the lives and learning of all children.
*Like the EMOs that run West Denver Prep and like the one that was pushed upon the community at Northeast Academy Charter in Montbello.